7 Things to Know About the Pentagon's New Plan for a 500-Ship Navy Fleet

The aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan and their carrier strike groups.
The aircraft carriers USS Nimitz, right, and USS Ronald Reagan and their carrier strike groups are conducting dual carrier operations in the Indo-Pacific as the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Keenan Daniels)

The secretary of defense this week detailed an aggressive new plan to significantly boost the Navy fleet to more than 500 vessels, with an emphasis on attack submarines, unmanned ships and "light carriers."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday unveiled the long-awaited results of a Navy review to determine the size of the future fleet. Coined Battle Force 2045, Esper said the future fleet will eventually include more than 500 manned and unmanned ships, making it a "more lethal, survivable, adaptable, sustainable, modern and larger force than we have seen in many years."

"If we can assemble the collective will and determination to see it through, I'm confident Battle Force 2045 will maintain our maritime superiority far into the future and ensure the United States Navy remains the greatest in the world for generations to come," he said.

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The new plan, which matched a document Defense News first obtained and reported on last month, marks a significant increase in the 355-ship fleet the Navy has been working toward. Esper acknowledged the U.S. will face challenges in building a 500-plus ship fleet under tightening budgets. But he stressed the buildup is necessary, citing China's troubling and "brazen destabilizing" actions in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Beijing's plans to modernize its force in the next 15 years and field "a world-class military by 2049."

"The Navy, for generations, has been absolutely critical to the national security, and also the economic security, of our country and will remain so in the future," Esper said at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "The challenge before us is to maintain the greatest Navy in the world."

Battle Force 2045 includes seven big changes to the future Navy fleet. Here's a look at what the military wants.

1. A Bigger Sub Force

A top priority must be building a larger and more capable submarine force, Esper said.

"The study reached a clear consensus on the need to rapidly increase attack submarines -- the most survivable strike platform in future great power conflicts -- to the range of 70 to 80 in the fleet," he said. "If we do nothing else, the Navy must begin building three Virginia-class submarines a year as soon as possible."

Plans also call for refueling the seventh Los Angeles-class submarine, Esper added, and continuing to invest in the future attack submarine known as SSN(X).

2. Conventional and 'Light' Carriers

Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers will remain the country's "most visible deterrent," Esper said. But the Navy will also examine options for light carriers that support short-takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft.

"One model we're considering is the [amphibious assault ship] America, that is equipped with more than a dozen F-35Bs," he said. "Light carriers provide additional presence and capacity to carry out day-to-day missions and free up supercarriers for more critical, high-end fights."

The Navy still needs to study the right mix it'll need, but Esper estimated the force will require between eight and 11 nuclear-powered flattops and six light carriers.

3. Up to 240 Drone Ships

The Navy will be investing big in unmanned or optionally manned platforms, Esper said, making up between 140 and 240 of the future fleet's ship count.

The ghost fleet, as it has been called, will carry out a variety of missions -- from resupply and surveillance to minelaying and missile strikes. According to Esper, they add "significant offensive and defensive capabilities to the fleet at an affordable cost in terms of both sailors and dollars."

"Earlier this month, the [unmanned surface vehicle] Sea Hunter prototype completed operations with the [destroyer] Russell, demonstrating that unmanned surface vehicles are technologically feasible and operationally valuable," he added.

4. More Small-Surface Combatants

The Navy wants to add between 60 and 70 more small-surface combatants to the fleet.

As a preview of what's to come, Esper pointed to the Navy's April $795 million contract award to a Wisconsin-based shipbuilder to design and build the first of the new guided-missile frigates.

"This is the first new major shipbuilding program the Navy has sought in more than a decade and will support the full range of military options," he said.

5. Dozens of Combat Logistics Ships

Navy and Marine Corps leaders have stressed that deterring China will mean distributed operations in the Asia-Pacific region, in which ships are operating far apart from one another while sending small teams of Marines ashore.

Esper said that, to carry out those missions successfully, the Navy will likely need between 70 and 90 combat logistics ships.

Aside from sustaining the force, Esper said the department's shipbuilding report will also address plans to get ground troops ashore "on time and with sufficient combat power." Adversaries have made it tougher for ships to stay close to shore, leaving the Marine Corps challenged to get its forces onto land in contested environments.

6. Unmanned Aircraft at Sea

Future flight decks are going to be packed with drones.

"The Navy must develop and deploy carrier-based unmanned aircraft of all types," Esper said. "This includes fighters, refuelers, early-warning and electronic-attack aircraft."

While the ship-count plan didn't analyze in detail the mix of manned and unmanned aircraft Navy vessels should deploy with in the future, Esper said the issue will continue to be studied.

7. More Amphibs

The Marine Corps wants to spend more time at sea, and Esper said he supports the service's top general's push to do so.

That's going to result in a bigger gator Navy as the service invests in more amphibious ships to transport Marines around the world.

"We see a need for more amphibious warfare ships than previously planned, in the 50- to 60-range," the defense secretary said.

To cover the costs of the changes, Esper said he has agreed to shift other Defense Department funds to the Navy's shipbuilding account, a big signal that the secretary supports the sea services' plans. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said earlier this year that the Navy would need a bigger slice of the overall Pentagon budget to meet its future requirements.

"These additional funding streams will increase the shipbuilding account up to 13% within the Navy's top line, matching the average percentage spent for new ships during President Reagan's buildup in the 1980s," Esper said of the planned shifts.

He stressed that the Navy must not sacrifice shipbuilding for maintenance. Esper acknowledged the challenges the Navy has faced in terms of shipyard capacity and maintenance delays, which he referred to as the service's Achilles heel.

He also said Congress must get back to passing budgets on time for Battle Force 2045 to work, adding that the Navy Department must be allowed to ditch legacy systems and low-priority activities to redirect funding toward higher priorities. Esper said he'll ask Congress to give the Defense Department the authority to pour unused end-of-year Navy funds directly into the shipbuilding accounts "instead of watching [them] expire."

"The objective is to have as many ships continuously at sea as possible to maintain a high level of readiness," he said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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